Customs survived: Youlgrave’s well dressing


Youlgrave’s well dressing is one of the oldest and best of the county’s well dressing. It takes place on the weekend nearest the Feast of St. John the Baptist.

Well thought of

Well dressing is a strong tradition in Derbyshire, especially the picturesque Peak region. Well dressings of varying quality spring up at any old well, pump, site there of,  drain or paddling pool! Fortunately, Youlgrave or Youlgreave is not one of them! Although not strictly speaking a well…rather a pump dressing!

A private water supply

Unlike nearby Tissington, the dressing of the wells appears to be linked to a firm date: the installation of a private water supply, but whether this was a revival is unclear. The main well dressing is at this site a round stone structure called the Fountain. This reservoir draws water from a spring in the hillside called Mawstone spring and was completed in 1829. Problems with corrosion appears to have affected the supply and this caused the installation of a  further ten taps around the village. There was apparently a great celebration when the scheme was completed and it appears the five sites were where the well dressing was established . Or possibly re-established as one of the sites was at or near a Holy well which may have been dressed in the distant past. By 1849, the interest in dressing declined and it was not until 1869 when the event was erected to celebrate the coming of the mains water and thus the custom became a ‘tap dressing’

Well put together

A team of 100 or more people are involved in the dressing and each well dressing takes the week to finish. Derbyshire well dressing follows a tried and tested method, where the wooden screens which consist of a tray like structure and lined with clay which is smoothed over. There are basically four stages: immersion of the boards in water, puddling the clay, making the design and then the petalling when the flowers are applied.  The immersion is done in a nearby stream and the boards are held down with stones to ensure they become thoroughly sodden which helps the clay attach and stay moist for longer. A typical screen is made of five shallow wooden trays erected at an elevation of at least 9ft by 71/2 feet according to the Youlgreave website.   Over this a paper template is made and the design is set out with lines draw from it.

Well dressed!

These designs are some of the best in Derbyshire, with biblical themes and text being the dominant feature. What the design is made from varies but only natural materials are used: petals, seeds, moss, and leaves being pressed into the clay to make the picture. The competitive spirit between the welldressing teams has produced some of the best in Derbyshire and although best to be seen on the weekend of their installation, even after the clay has cracked and changeable British weather has done it worst they still shine in their artistry.

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